I’ve been thinking a bit more about my take on the first eleven cantos of the poem. Here I staked my claim that Canto XII marks the true beginning of Ariosto’s poem because of its numerous similarities to Canto I. Perhaps treating Canto I-XI as an extended prologue is a bit much, but let us proceed at least on the assumption that it is Part I of the poem.
There’s a lot of game in these cantos, and I can do no more than sketch a few ideas. The overarching theme here is a contrast between two loves, the sensual and the rational. The former is a destructive force that arises from physical beauty, overthrows virtue, and drives the drama of the poem by being a source of conflict. The latter is a contemplative repose, strongly Platonic, and inspiring of greatness.
Angelica represents sensual beauty and its corresponding love of desire. This is the destructive love: Angelica narrowly escapes three separate rape scenes (Sacripant in I, the necromancer in VIII, Rogero in X-XI) inspired by it, Alcina builds a kingdom around lust and destroys her lovers in serial, all of Olympia’s sacrifices are undone by it. Orlando abandons his post, and France to its fate, to pursue it. It is a force that twists even the very old, male and female alike; once it takes root the vice does not fade with age.
Bradamant represents rational beauty and its corresponding love of nobility. This is the creative force in the poem: Bradamant undertakes great deeds to rescue her true love, Logistilla builds a kingdom-academy that is in every respect a heavenly Jerusalem or Realm of the Forms, quasi-angelic powers like Melissa intervene to ensure the survival of such love. The healing and redemptive power of this love is shown in Oberto, who marries Olympia and bends the powers of his kingdom against Bireno to avenge her.
The kingdoms of Alcina and Logistilla embody these loves much as St. Augustine depicts the earthly and heavenly cities. Their island, itself a higher plane of being, a semi-angelic realm reachable by magic or the whim of the rulers, shows that the battle between the two loves corresponds with the war in heaven. Humans do not fare well in it: Alcina’s realm is a graveyard of men undone by lust and Ariosto takes extended delight in making Rogero’s pitiable state a cautionary tale for all.
In that war, on that island, Alcina’s sensual delight is winning. Logistilla rightfully rules, but she has been driven back to a corner of the island. While her supremacy is made clear in Canto X in the overthrow of Alcina’s fleet (with sorcerous philosophy and Greek fire!), her rational dominion does not march forth to reclaim the island.
Naturally the island is also the human soul, at war with itself because of Original Sin and the wages of vice. Drama is relocated to the interior life of virtue, true and unremitting warfare to the triumph of virtue over vice. Rogero’s harrowing escape to Logistilla’s realm is the superhuman effort of undoing the vice of lust. St. Augustine would be proud of the levels at which this poem is working!
Enough on the theme for now. Another very cool feature of the opening cantos is the number of protagonists. Ariosto’s poem has a wildly complex structure in part because the elements of the poem serve multiple functions to address two very different audiences listening to the poem at the same time: men and women!
On a male-centric view the protagonists of the poem are Orlando and Rogero (see Canto I, the opening stanzas). The female characters are objects of male desire of different kinds, each providing one or more lessons in virtue and practical living for the men in the audience. The primary female objects are mentioned above, but all the women work this way in Part I of the poem.
But now the proto-feminist twist: those same objects of male desire are themselves protagonists, and for them the male protagonists are objects of desire of different kinds! If Angelica were nothing but a cautionary tale for men, the poem would be just as patriarchal-oppressive as one would expect of the Italian Renaissance. But she (like Bradamante, Olympia, and others besides) is a fully-realized character with her own development and her own lessons to impart to the audience. This obverse-reverse feature of many characters is one of the reasons the poem becomes so unwieldy at times. Ariosto may have gotten a little too cute for his own good (though I suppose it says something about my own tastes that I like it).
A reservation: is Ariosto really writing a morality tale? This sounds like an awful lot of consciousness-raising, suspiciously 21st century at times. And yet this is the right time period for such a piece, and the standard elements of the Catholic morality tale will all find their place as the poem continues. Just how many genres does Ariosto think he’s writing here? I’ve sworn off secondary lit on Orlando Furioso for a variety of reasons, but I may have to dabble my toe in the water to see what’s out there. Some C.S. Lewis may be in order…